Hiro Matsuda is hailed as the man who broke Hulk Hogan’s leg the first time he stepped into the ring. That is according to Hulk Hogan, anyway. Matsuda was a tough-as-nails wrestler, trainer, and gatekeeper of the sport who would weed out people he felt didn’t deserve to be in the business. And according to his peers, he was one of the finest men that ever lived. His journey in life was not an easy one, but his path to success in wrestling sure as hell is one fascinating story. And about humbling a young Hulk Hogan, we dive into this, too!
Editor’s update (August 15, 2019): After reading this story, the family of Hiro Matsuda (Yasuhiro Kojima) privately reached out to us and answered some questions that have been left to fan interpretation in the endless lore that is professional wrestling. 20 years after we lost Matsuda, we are provided with some closure. Read through to the end of this article to read this update.
“It wasn’t like WWE’s Tough Enough. That’s a baby-sitting service compared to what Hiro Matsuda put you through. Matsuda’s camp was the real deal, the real boot camp. There were days when I wanted to cry because I didn’t know what new torture Matsuda was going to devise for me.”
– Hulk Hogan
In the mid-seventies, Terry Bollea was far away from becoming arguably the most famous wrestler of all time: Hulk Hogan (but for the purpose of this article, he’ll be called Hogan throughout to stay consistent). Other than playing music in a band and working out at the gym, Hogan was pursuing a possible banking career in Tampa, Florida for $3.75 an hour. As part of his training, he had to look through a bunch of files, and some of them were of wrestlers from the area where he noticed that as far back as 1971 some were making twelve to fifteen thousand dollars a week. This pushed the future “Hulkster” to find out more on how he too could get into this lucrative sport.
He began to haunt the Imperial Room which was the wrestler’s Tuesday night hangout after the matches trying to talk to them and get an inside tip on how to get trained. After a while, he had made enough contacts where he felt comfortable speaking to Mike Graham (son of Florida promoter Eddie Graham). One night Mike took Hogan outside to the bar’s parking lot and told him that he could set him up with Hiro Matsuda. Hiro would make sure he was in shape, and if he was able to pass his tests, he might have a chance.
Hogan was so excited about this opportunity that he quit the band he was playing for, dropped out of college, and sold all his books because he was so sure that he’d become a star in the ring. But Eddie Graham wasn’t setting Hogan up for a training session. Hogan needed to be taught that getting into wrestling wasn’t for everybody, and the wrestlers already inside wouldn’t make it easy for wannabees. The sport was a close-knit business and there was no way that a long-haired weightlifter who played in a rock-and-roll band who had not paid any dues by at least being an accomplished amateur wrestler would get a free pass, not in Matsuda’s gym infamously known as “The Snake Pit.”
Hulk Hogan decided to take a shot at wrestling even though he was part of a band and going to college at the time.
Early footage from 1977 of Hulk Hogan training to become a wrestler:
According to his autobiography, Hollywood Hulk Hogan, Matsuda was wrestling six days a week and putting students through the grinder on his only day off and this meant that he didn’t have the best of dispositions. Although Matsuda in his own posthumous autobiography, The Hiro Matsuda Stories: Samurai Spirit, written by his daughter Stephanie Kojima, described it a little differently saying that he was only wrestling part-time by then but he trained “those boys” (Hulk Hogan, Paul Orndorff, and Brian Blair) five mornings a week. Matsuda estimates that one out of every twenty that trained in his gym didn’t eventually quit, but he never charged any money either. This wasn’t a business to him. He was entrusted to look for talent and weed out students that didn’t have what it took to be in the business. He could drive his students as hard as he wanted because he didn’t charge a fee, and if they didn’t like it, they could simply leave. But if they could endure his training, he knew that they could become great.
Hiro Matsuda: “If you want to work the main event, you must have guts and determination. In order to make determination, you have to go through the grind mill to build endurance.”
“They [Hogan, Orndorff, and Blair] showed great potential because they could keep up with me,” Hiro Matsuda recounts in his autobiography, Samurai Spirit. “Sometimes, they had a hard time, but they never said that they could not continue. They tried their best to keep up. I was twice as old as they were. I kept telling them, ‘Keep up with me!’ If they could not, they would feel very ashamed. Therefore, they kept up with me very well. In order to become a good wrestler, you had to have it in you from the heart. It is easy to become a professional wrestler, but if you want to work the main event, you must have guts and determination. In order to make determination, you have to go through the grind mill to build endurance. Also, your mind has to be very strong. I gave those boys a great opportunity, not just the physical training but the mental training, too. After four months of intensive training, they passed my test. I started showing them wrestling moves in the ring.”
Notice above Matsuda says: “After four months of intensive training, they passed my test.” But didn’t Hulk Hogan once claim Hiro Matsuda broke his leg on the first day of training?
Two former protégés of Hiro Matsuda, Hulk Hogan and Paul Orndorff, cutting a promo together in ’85:
Hogan quickly learned that there’s a huge difference between weightlifting shape and wrestling shape. He got to a point during Matsuda’s workout that he felt his legs were like rubber and that he was soon going to faint. Stories of thousands of push-ups, squats, and sit-ups are common lore when training with Matsuda. Next, it was time for Hogan to wrestle.
Did Hiro Matsuda really break Hulk Hogan’s leg?
Hulk Hogan recalls in his autobiography, Hollywood Hulk Hogan, “Before I knew it, Matsuda was sitting down between my legs and putting his elbow in the middle of my shin. Then he grabbed the end of my toe and twisted my foot until-crack!-my shinbone broke in half. The whole thing took about two seconds. I was hurt and confused. I didn´t know why Matsuda had done that to me. I had a lot to learn.”
Hogan mentions afterward that he believes that this was the right protocol at the time. Few were allowed into the sport and even if you endured these torturous training sessions, it just meant that you had an invitation to show up the next day for another beating. Trainers like Hiro Matsuda were gatekeepers of the sport and weeded out people he believed didn’t deserve to be in wrestling, and HE would decide when your dues had been paid. Hogan believed that if he’d been a former amateur wrestler with some credentials then the proper thing would’ve been to beat him down and wear him out. But since he hadn’t paid his dues and had no wrestling credentials whatsoever, he needed to prove just how bad he wanted it.
So what has Hiro Matsuda said about the infamous leg-breaking incident that Hogan has told time and time again? Well, quite frankly, nothing. At least not in his official autobiography anyway. There is NO mention of this event in his book. So what’s the story here? Did he purposely omit to tell this story to his family during his final days before he succumbed to cancer in 1999? Or did he mention it but his daughter decided not to include it in the autobiography? Further, is there the possibility that the incident never happened? Or it did but was just an accident?
While Matsuda neglected to tell the one thing that most many fans remember him by, he did have this to say about Hogan in his book. “His name was Terry Bollea when I first met him. He was playing in a musical band in Tampa. He was a nice-looking, big boy. He came to the wrestling office. He said he wanted to become a professional wrestler. I told him, ‘I will give you the opportunity if you can keep up with me.’ He agreed, ‘Yes, I will keep up with you, Mr. Matsuda.’ He was one of my protégés and became the most famous wrestler in the U.S.”
As Hogan tells it in his book, after his leg was in a cast for about ten weeks, instead of putting his aspirations to become a wrestler aside and pursuing any other way to make a living, Hogan decided to go back to Matsuda’s gym with a new, shorter haircut and a different attitude. Three months would go by and trainers beat Hogan up again, stretched his ligaments to their limits, chipped his teeth, tore a bunch of muscles, twisted his knee and even injured his neck, but little by little the hatred in their eyes lessened when they saw that Hogan wasn’t going to go anywhere and he wasn’t going to quit. Also, if they would attempt to break his leg again, Hogan would be prepared to block their advances.
“I just remember being in excruciating pain and hearing the Briscos laugh at me. I was their favorite form of entertainment. I’m glad I was able to brighten their day because they sure weren’t brightening mine.”
Trainers continued to be rough with Hogan for months, but he was slowly earning respect. Matsuda’s scowl lessened a little and he lightened up with him week by week. The two even had some normal conversations between the torture sessions.
After months of this, Hogan was on the verge of quitting his dream of becoming a professional wrestler due to going broke. He was living in a hotel room, had sold his van, all his musical equipment and everything he’d accumulated for the past ten years. During this trying time, an old-timer named Charlie Lay stepped in to tell him to hang in there, and that he’d never seen anybody go through what Hogan was experiencing.
Finally, Eddie Graham, who was a former Southern Heavyweight Champion, told Hogan that he was going to go down there to the training facility and show him some things. Hogan feared the worst, but nonetheless, he got together with Eddie and that’s when his world changed.
Hogan was explained that wrestling was a cooperation between the wrestlers: “a work”, not a “shoot”. It’s not the tougher guy who wins, the winner is already predetermined.
Hogan also claimed that he now understood that they just wanted to make sure that nobody would be able to pin his shoulders to the mat unless he wanted them to and that he would be able to take care of himself outside of the ring and even in Japan if ever needed. Now he could see that Matsuda’s intentions were in the right place, but it was still difficult for Hogan’s mind to grasp that wrestling wasn’t about being a badass, it was about putting on a good show and working together to please the fans.
“Eddie Graham told me something I did want to hear. Finally, I had paid my dues. I was going to start wrestling for real. I see know that they were doing the right thing for me. But at the time, I was devastated.”
Who was Hiro Matsuda and what events shaped the man who Hulk Hogan says broke his leg on his first day of training?
His real name was Yasuhiro Kojima but he obtained the name Hiro Matsuda in St. Joseph, Missouri in the early sixties from promoter Gust Karras. He told him that when he wrestled in the early thirties, he knew a middleweight wrestler named Marty Matsuda who was also his friend, and Kojima reminded him of Marty. Karras wanted to name him Matsuda in his honor. Then Yasuhiro was just shortened to “Hiro”: Hiro Matsuda.
But his story begins much earlier as a child from 1945-1952 where he’d see American soldiers staying in Japan during the Occupation after World War II. They seemed to be very rich to him because they’d ride in their own special car when riding the train and had chocolate, candies, chewing gum that they’d even give to children sometimes. He had wondered what kind of country had such abundance such as America. When he saw professional wrestling on television, he thought that it might be his way out of Japan so he could see the world and not stay stuck living in the structured system it was known for.
As a child, Matsuda was lucky to survive the bombardments from the U.S. B29s rained down even after he was sent to the countryside to live with his uncle. He recalls the craters left behind by the bombs as huge. When they filled up with water after a rainstorm, he and several of the children would swim in them. At the conclusion of the war, while living in a shack on a small field, his parents sold vegetables in a stand.
“If we could have something to eat, we were very lucky. Most of the time we only had a small amount of rice.”
One of his fondest memories with his father was selling the vegetables in Tokyo. When they were able to make a profit, his father would stop at a noodle stand and buy him food.
“A boy never cries when coming home; this means you have no honor.”
Once in school, he got into a fight with another kid and returned home crying. His father told him, “A boy never cries when coming home; this means you have no honor.” From then on, he never lost a fight to anyone and the other kids started obeying his orders.
As an 18-year-old senior in high school, he vividly remembers one day seeing professional wrestling for the first time on TV. Rikidōzan was facing either Ben or Mike Sharpe. This was when he decided that he was going to drop baseball, which he had been pursuing at the time, and instead, become a professional wrestler.
Rikidōzan was a former sumo wrestler and was discovered by Bobby Brown and Harold Sakata from Hawaii while visiting Japan as part of the entertainment sent to the American soldiers. He went to Hawaii to train and became Japan’s first pro wrestler (he was Korean by birth).
In 1956, accompanied by two of his high school friends, Hiro went to Rikidōzan’s house and when the young wrestler who answered the door saw that he had a good-sized body, he was let inside. To his amazement, everyone was eating in the dining room and the table was overflowing with food, even beef and chicken! Rikidōzan told him that he had to eat, and this was the first time he’d tried beef. His family was unable to afford meat and so he ate as much as he could and was invited the next day to his gym to start training.
That summer, Matsuda participated in his first summer tour with the wrestlers while he was second to the visiting American talent. This meant he’d help guide them to the ring before the match and guide them back to the locker rooms. This was on top of the ring set up and break down duties of course. On the old-fashioned steam engine train they’d travel into the different towns on, he rode with the other young boys who had to sit and sleep on newspapers on the floor. But he didn’t mind because he had a stomach full of food and he was seeing different towns. His main goal was to train as hard as he could and eventually compete in the United States.
With the hours of training, food and the occasional beers given to him by trainers Yoshihara and Yoshino Sano, Matsuda gained 33 lbs and was now up to 220. The intense training he’d later give his students in the U.S. stemmed from the rigorous workouts “imposed” by his trainers in Japan early in his career.
Matsuda’s first match was against a 5th-degree black belt who had challenged Rikidōzan, but he allowed Matsuda to “take care of him” instead. Once he defeated him (legit, not a work) and what should have been a reason to celebrate his victory instead was met with lessened respect by his sensei.
“I was hoping Rikidōzan would praise me for the victory. As soon as he saw me in the dressing room, he slapped my face a couple of times. I had no idea why he slapped me. He shouted, ‘Kojima! Why didn’t you play around with that karate guy longer?’ I thought to myself, ‘I was fighting for my life for you!’ I did not say this because I must respect my sensei. I was boiling mad, infuriated. I wanted to rage an attack on him. Toyonoboli, another big wrestler in Japan, saw my anger. He grabbed me and carried me away. He told me, ‘Master Rikidōzan was very happy with your performance, but he does not know how to show his appreciation to you. That is the way he is.’ To me this did not matter, I lost full respect for him.”
The tension between sensei and student finally reached the breaking point when Rikidōzan told him that in order to go to the United States, he needed to get bigger and he believed that in order for Matsuda to become a real pro wrestler, he first needed to make a name for himself by being a good sumo wrestler or judo master. This is when he quit and promised to prove to him that he did not have to go to sumo school to become a famous American-style wrestler. He began training in freestyle wrestling, judo, and karate but no longer with Rikidōzan.
Hiro’s goal to wrestle in the States almost didn’t happen because back then, Japan was a developing country and most people were not allowed to leave or carry American dollars. You could not use the Japanese yen to buy a ticket. Instead, you needed to go through the Minister of Finance to get a sponsor. Eventually, a person that was a good friend of Matsuda’s mother’s, helped Hiro immigrate to Peru by using his influential ties in Japan to help obtain a visa.
“When I left Japan in 1960, I told my parents, ‘I have a one-way ticket. If I never make a success of my dream, I will never step on Japanese soil again.”
Max Aguirre, a wrestling promoter in Peru, became his sponsor. After wrestling in Peru for around 4 months, he was on to Mexico where he eventually met Black “Blackie” Guzman who was the brother of legendary Mexican luchador El Santo. He made a deal with him where he would get him his visa to be able to enter the U.S. under the agreement that Matsuda would pay him thirty-percent of the money he earned after expenses.
Once in the United States, it was while working in Oklahoma where Matsuda gained the most experience wrestling a more American style. It’s also where he met blind promoter, Leroy McGuirk. Matsuda began drawing really well because he was “beating up” the American heroes. This made the fans hate him and in turn, made them buy tickets. Everything was leading to an eventual match with Oklahoma wrestling hero, Danny Hodge.
McGuirk would go on to introduce Matsuda to Strangler Lewis. Although Lewis was in his later years, Matsuda was very interested in how wrestling used to be and wanted to learn as much as possible from this legendary shooter. He also met future partner Duke Keomuka in Texas. He and Duke would later win four NWA World Tag Titles (Florida version).
Still building the anticipation for a Hiro Matsuda versus Danny Hodge World Junior Heavyweight Championship match, the promoter thought it would be interesting to pit the new NWA World Heavyweight champion Pat O’ Conner who had beaten Buddy Rogers two weeks before, against Matsuda. They had a memorable 60-minute draw.
Due to fan interference and a near riot, the first Matsuda versus Hodge singles bout had no winner and Hodge retained his title. They met a second time and to the fan’s relief, Hodge beat Matsuda cleanly after 45 minutes. Hiro was off to Florida after The Kentuckian (Grizzly Smith, father of Jake Roberts) recommended him to promoter Cowboy Luttrall because he saw that he was drawing well in Oklahoma.
In Florida, Matsuda met The Great Malenko, Eddie Graham, Don Curtis, and Yukon Eric. He shocked everyone when he became Southern Heavyweight champion by beating Eddie Graham. He was also chosen to wrestle Lou Thesz on one of his trips to Florida.
“Winning and losing meant nothing when I was wrestling an opponent like Lou Thesz,” Matsuda shares in his book. “To me, he was like a god.”
In 1963, matches with Eddie Graham became the biggest drawing cards in Florida. But that same year Matsuda took a 2-3 month extended leave to train with the legend Karl Gotch. This perhaps had the strongest influence on how he later trained his students. It was a case of an older wrestler pushing the younger one to his peak. Matsuda remembered these tough workouts in cold weather with no modern facilities or equipment and later applied some of this philosophy into his unforgiving training in Florida.
This is also when he learned about the death of his former sensei Rikidōzan from peritonitis (inflammation of the inner lining of the inner wall of the abdomen) due to a stabbing in a nightclub. Matsuda admits that this caused him to lose his focus and motivation for a while because he wanted to be able to wrestle Rikidōzan and prove to him in person that he’d made it in the U.S. on his own terms and was training with legendary wrestler Karl Gotch. Now, his focus became only on earning money, not improving his skills or proving Rikidōzan wrong.
Matsuda’s reputation grew exponentially after renewing his rivalry with Hodge in Florida and winning the Junior Heavyweight Championship in 1964. With this win, Hiro Matsuda became the first Japanese pro wrestler to hold an NWA singles title.
By 1969, Matsuda stopped wrestling full-time and was helping promote in Florida. He even participated in “The Battle For Atlanta” siding with the NWA against Ann Gunkel in 1972 by sending wrestlers to help reinforce the gutted Georgia territory.
Around 1976, Hiro Matsuda mostly participated in the training of future talent at the Sportatorium in Tampa, Florida where the “The Snake Pit” was located.
Nobody ever claimed that Hiro Matsuda was a soft trainer, but was he capable of breaking a student’s leg on purpose just to prove a point? And what do his peers think of him?
Matsuda never stopped training, according to Brian Blair. Even in his 60s, he could do hundreds of push-ups and squats. Blair, who wrestled as one half of the Killer Bees with Jim Brunzell in the WWF during the mid-’80s, said in an AP News article after the passing of Matsuda, “We never knew wrestling as sports entertainment. He trained us to believe we’d have to fight for our lives. He used to kick us and say,`Come on, boys, I’m an old man and you can’t even keep up with me!'”
Many other respected veterans of the ring mirrored Blair’s words and added their own positive thoughts in this Mike Mooneyham column.
“He was all class and a wonderful person,” says Terry Funk. “His word was so good you could always count on it. But at the same time in the wrestling ring as a shooter, he was a tough SOB. There was just nobody any tougher. His type of guy will be deeply missed in the wrestling business.”
“There was no other finer man in the world than Hiro Matsuda,” admits Jerry Brisco. “I’ll always remember him and he’ll be very dear to my heart. He’s somebody I’ll tell my kids and my grandkids about because he was a wonderful, wonderful person. No matter what phase of life you’re talking about, Matsuda was the man.”
“Some guys were great in the ring. Hiro Matsuda was class from the ring to his personal life,” Cowboy Bill Watts confesses, whose career often intertwined with Matsuda’s in the Oklahoma, Florida and Atlanta territories. “You could count on his word. His word was his bond. He was just a very special person.”
“He was the franchise wrestling backbone of the Florida territory as a heel before Jack Brisco,” adds former NWA world champion, Dory Funk Jr. “But he was also the Florida policeman, the policeman at the gate. If anyone wanted to get into the business, they had to go through Hiro Matsuda first. We’d turn them loose with Matty and find out if they really wanted to be wrestlers. Consequently, we didn’t have a lot of guys come into the business at that time.”
For now, Hogan is sticking to his story.
On November 27, 1999, Hiro Matsuda sadly passed away in Tampa, Florida after a battle with colon cancer. Arguably, Matsuda’s claim to fame for this generation and in the future is that he broke Hogan’s leg to protect the business. I do wonder if Hiro’s daughter Stephanie Kojima, author of her father’s autobiography, knows something that we don’t. And I also wonder if anyone involved in the business at the time could confirm or deny what happened.
“No matter how famous the boys I trained became, they showed their appreciation of what I gave to them. When they thanked me, that was my satisfaction. My idea was to discourage the boys so they would quit. I worked the boys hard to see if they had the determination and the guts to be a great wrestler. Without this, there was no way to make it to the top.”
– Hiro Matsuda
Hiro Matsuda getting “Sleeper Happy” in 1987
Hiro Matsuda was a Legacy Inductee for the 2018 WWE Hall Of Fame and is also in the Florida Wrestling Hall of Fame.
Some of the wrestlers he trained were: Mike Graham, Steve Keirn, Hulk Hogan, “Mr. Wonderful” Paul Orndorff, B. Brian Blair, Lex Luger, Ron Simmons, “Cowboy” Bob Orton, Ray Fernandez (Hercules), Scott Hall and Ed “The Bull” Gantner.
He’s even remembered in Tampa Bay with his own beer.
An update from the family of Hiro Matsuda — Did he really break Hulk Hogan’s leg?
Editor’s update (August 15, 2019): After reading this article, the family of Hiro Matsuda (Yasuhiro Kojima) privately reached out to us and answered some questions that have been left to fan interpretation in the endless lore that is professional wrestling. 20 years after we lost Matsuda, we are provided with some closure.
The incident in question is a topic that has sparked discussion and controversy amongst fans — Did Hiro Matsuda really break Hulk Hogan’s leg?
Hogan has repeatedly made the claim but it was omitted, for good reason, from Matsuda’s autobiography leaving many to wonder if this truly happened or if it was just another fabrication in the long list of wrestling tall tales. This story has been told by Hogan on various occasions and is accepted as truth- but is it really? Or was this just a story Hogan made up to put himself over?
We wondered why this was not talked about in Matsuda’s book when everything else was mentioned with meticulous detail.
His daughter Stephanie Kojima, author of The Hiro Matsuda Stories: Samurai Spirit, reached out to us dispelling this misinformation once and for all.
“Matsuda did tell his wife Judy (my mother) that he indeed broke Hulk Hogan’s leg. To be more exact, it was the lower part of his leg and not the ankle as some people claim and it definitely wasn’t just a sprain.”
This would indicate it was either the tibia or fibula bone that was broken. It was noted that Hogan was in a cast for around a year afterward.
She continues, “As the gatekeeper of the Florida territory, Mike Graham and some of the other boys sent prospective students to be tested physically through harsh training to see if they were good candidates to become professional wrestlers. You know the term as “stretching”, although he never used this term with me. They were not charged any fee for the training, but at the same time, this allowed my father the right to get rid of them at any time. But I can assure you that my father was very happy and proud when his students passed his training because they deserved it.”
So why wasn’t the Hulk Hogan broken leg incident included in the book? She explains.
“He did not tell me about the incident and I believe it was not included in the recounting of his life because a wrestler back then didn’t talk about those particulars to people not in the business. This is one way that they protected it.”
This book was published in 2019, but in 1999 when Matsuda was relaying these stories to his daughters for his book, kayfabe still had a pulse within the industry.
Stephanie continues, “Also, maybe he didn’t want me, his daughter, to know about it. The little he told me about Hulk Hogan, is in the book.
“He briefly mentioned the incident to my mother Judy. When I asked her if my father told her why he did it, or if she asked for further details from him, I was told that once my father told you something but didn’t offer any details afterward, one did not insist for further information. He was a man of few words and not a braggadocious person. There doesn’t seem to be a public record of the incident or at least, it never left the training center on account of the people who were there that day. I’m not sure who was there to witness all of it.”
When Hiro was told by the doctors that he had cancer and there was no way to know how long he had left to live, he asked his family to get him a book on positive thinking and a book about death. He never stopped fighting to achieve his goals in life. Stephanie says that her dad gave her only one piece of advice ever. It is a Japanese proverb that says: “Fall down seven times, stand up eight.”
It is now confirmed that Hulk Hogan did in fact get his leg broken by Hiro Matsuda.
Before we got off the phone, a thread on the Facebook group The Hiro Matsuda Stories was brought up. In this thread, fans were speculating over whether or not Matsuda broke Hogan’s leg intentionally or by accident during his training. When we asked her whether or not her father broke Hogan’s leg intentionally or by accident, Stephanie did not hesitate to respond with a stoic calmness in her voice. “My dad did everything with intent.”
The Hiro Matsuda Stories: Samurai Spirit written by his daughter Stephanie Kojima is available for purchase.
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